• Strange Rites

    One of my pet peeves about RPGs is that they reflect the ethnocentrism of a culture where we take for granted that religions are based on ethical monotheism with an essentially congregational structure. Sure, it’s a conceit of RPGs that religion is polytheistic, but look at the maps of any kind of temple in a module or collection of battle maps and you’ll see there are pews. Pews! As if the serpent cult are assembling to listen to sermons about the scaly transformation that awaits them.

    If you read history or anthropology, you quickly learn that real paganism is far more bizarre than anything you can imagine if your thought process is “start with Episcopalians, except they’re all dwarves and they worship Moradin and there’s an anvil where the altar should be.” You know the phrase “Viking funeral” and probably think it means pushing a rowboat as floating coffin out to sea then shooting a flaming arrow at it. This is an invention of pop culture. The truth, as we know from the Abbasid ambassador to the Rus, Ahmad ibn Fadlan, is like something out of a particularly gruesome horror movie.

    New world cultures provide lots of extreme examples. Everyone knows about meso-American human sacrifice, but fewer people know that the same cultures would also perform sacrifice via self-mutilation like piercing your own foreskin with a fish barb. Other American Indian cultures had a fascination with excruciating pain as a transcendent religious experience as well. George Catlin’s ethnography of the Mandan nation includes descriptions of a coming of age ritual that involved boys being starved, crucified, and beaten.

    Or consider the reconstructed proto-Indo-European institution of the kóryos. Teen boys would be sent out from the tribe to live as a wolf pack and re-entry to society as young men involved them ritually sacrificing their pet dogs.

    Anyway, the point is that religious rites can be really strange. I created these tables to let you create something strange, but consistent with the ethnographic and archaeological record, the next time your player-characters encounter a religious ritual.

    Roll on each table

    What’s the occasion?

    1. Funerary
    2. Astronomical (eg, solstice, equinox, new moon)
    3. Agrarian (eg, harvest, planting)
    4. Wedding
    5. Coming of age
    6. Diplomatic (eg, signing a peace treaty)

    What is the nature of worship? Roll twice.

    1. Orgy
    2. Human sacrifice (1d4: 1. Strangulation, 2. Immolation, 3. Ritual combat, 4. Heart removal)
    3. Animal sacrifice (1d6: 1. Cattle, 2. Goats or sheep, 3. Horses, 4. Doves or chickens, 5. Birds of prey, 6. Dogs or wolves)
    4. Feast
    5. Bonfire of trade goods
    6. Fasting
    7. Hallucinogenic drugs
    8. Self-torture
    9. Poetry recital
    10. Athletic games

    How long does it last?

    1. An hour
    2. Several hours
    3. A day and a night
    4. Three days
    5. A week
    6. All month

    Who or what’s presence is propitious/taboo?

    Roll once for each. If you get the same roll for both, invent some distinction. For instance, flying insects are propitious but crawling insects are taboo or recently enslaved people are taboo, but vernae are propitious.

    1. Insects
    2. Birds
    3. Scavengers
    4. Lightning
    5. Nobility
    6. Commoners
    7. Slaves
    8. Foreigners
    9. Boys who have yet to kill
    10. Menstruating women
    11. Post-menopausal women
    12. Third gender people
    13. Anyone who has killed since the last (1d4: 1. solstice, 2. full moon, 3. rain storm, 4. harvest)
    14. The kinship moiety opposite those holding the rites (eg, in a patrilineal culture, the priest’s mother’s brothers)
    15. Anyone who was born (1d4: 1. with a caul, 2. to a widow, 3. during the new moon, 4. to a slave mother)
    16. Flowers
    17. Mushrooms
    18. Meat
    19. Root vegetables
    20. Roll twice

    What supernatural entities are invoked or propitiated?

    1. The ancestors of their lineage
    2. Minor gods who are the special protectors of a particular lineage (eg, lares)
    3. The fey
    4. Nature in an animistic sense
    5. A 6HD or higher monster (a dragon, a mind flayer, etc) which the worshippers believe to be a divinity
    6. A Deities & Demigods style pantheon of gods
    7. A Lovecraftian entity
    8. Foreigners whose visit two generation ago is still misremembered as a visit from the gods
  • What’s the Treasure for Anyway?

    One of the conceits many OSR games inherited from TSR era D&D is that most experience points should be for treasure, sometimes called the GP=XP rule. Or, for people whose notions of realism can survive the premise of mighty thewed barbarians slaying serpent folk but not that it takes 8oz of gold to buy a head of garlic, a SP=XP rule. The advantage of this rule is that it encourages exploration and sneakiness over combat if you scatter gold XP pellets around the dungeon. The disadvantage is that it’s kind of stupid.

    With that in mind, here’s a table where each player can roll to see why exactly their PC is so desperate for loot as to routinely wander around haunted tombs by torchlight:

    1. to purchase the freedom of that girl who always flashes you a smile in the market 
    2. to honor your deceased matrilineal uncle with a funeral orgy that will make the earth shake with the envy of your ancestors in the underworld
    3. to bribe a genealogist of the royal court to fabricate a claim to noble blood before the next census
    4. to afford enough yellow lotus to get as high as you did before you built up a tolerance 
    5. to pay the debts of the orphanage where you grew up and/or where you deposit your bastards
    6. to hire mercenaries to destroy the camp of the bandits who sacked your childhood village
    7. to buy that kickass lateen-sailed pleasure boat you’ve wanted since you had a charcoal drawing of it on papyrus hung up in your childhood bedroom
    8. to travel beyond the horizon and see if the tales are true 
    9. to pay for initiation into the sacred mysteries of the Drowned Maiden 
    10. to go back to blacksmith school and get your anvil operator’s license
    11. to achieve a lifelong dream of opening a really nice hookah lounge, I mean really nice
    12. to carouse until the taverns are drained and the brothels exhausted 
    13. to flee a sorcerer who cast your horoscope and saw you would make the perfect sacrifice for summoning the Nameless Horror of the Outer Dark
    14. to pay off your debt to userers of the thieves’ guild
    15. to pay wergild and end the blood feud that has enmeshed your family for a generation 
    16. to provide a dowry big enough to get some schmuck to marry the dancing girl you impregnated several months ago
    17. to make a propitiatory offering to the gods of the underworld who you can feel calling you to enact an ancestral curse
    18. to get the seed money for the really big score you’ve been planning for months
    19. to buy a monkey who is trained to make obscene gestures for the entertainment of your dinner guests 
    20. everybody wants treasure – – that’s why they call it “treasure”
  • My First Module

    I’m a reasonably experienced GM but I’ve never written an adventure that other people could run. I’ve run D&D many times, but only with published modules and campaigns, some of which I kit-bashed. I also ran a homebrew Gumshoe campaign to completion, but it was play by post and also based on contemporary Earth, which means I could get away with my entire prep for the whole campaign being a few pages of notes and then wing it with Google Maps. But I’ve never written something in enough detail that someone else could run it.

    I’m calling the module I want to write “Treasure of the Satrap’s Army.” The idea is a hybrid of a hexcrawl and an “escape the dungeon” scenario. Let’s call it “escape the hexcrawl.” The players start out with all the treasure and their goal is to keep most of it as they cross a lot of hostile territory to reach one of several safe havens where they can cash in the treasure for XP. My key inspirations were Xenophon’s Anabasis and the movie Triple Frontier.

    The premise is that the players are with the camp or baggage train of an army when they learn the army is defeated and the enemy is closing in to pillage and massacre so they best grab what they can and get out. I want the tone to be sword and sorcery and the setting to be vaguely Silk Road, with the defeated army being a sort of fantasy Persia and the victorious army fantasy steppe nomads.

    I’ve already written 2/3 of a version of this module and ran it for some friends (thanks for playing guys). We had fun, but I noticed a few mistakes and issues. As inspired by Angry GM live tweeting his composition of a mega dungeon, I figure the best way to do it is to think carefully about all the various issues that are involved and writing about it. Notably, I can already see the following dilemmas:

    • What character level should it be written for?
    • What system should I write for? Should I assume GMs have access to that system’s bestiary?
    • How much treasure (and by extension, XP) should they get?
    • What form should the treasure take and how should the players suffer for weighing themselves down with too much treasure?
    • Should the treasure just be sitting there or should they have to role-play searching for it as the enemy approaches like a sword and sorcery version of Supermarket Sweep?
    • Hexcrawl or pointcrawl?
    • OSE style “control panel” or traditional paragraphs?

    Eventually we will get to questions beyond the actual writing of how best to package and circulate it, which will involve such issues as:

    • What price point?
    • What kind of art to source / commission?
    • Kickstarter or straight to DriveThruRPG?
  • Hi there

    I expect this blog to consist of:

    • my general thoughts on gaming (sometimes informed by my background as a social scientist)
    • reviews of gaming materials
    • thinking aloud as I write my first module, “Treasure of the Satrap’s Army.” More on that in the next post.

    My basic perspective is pretty typical for OSR: I prefer rules light and sword and sorcery.

    My gaming background is that I’ve been gaming off and on since I got the Mentzer red box. I graduated to AD&D 1e and 2e and also various Palladium games, but my interest trailed off when I realized I was a collector of closet drama rather than a player and I never got into 3e. Also, the dungeon punk art style seemed like a huge let down compared to the TSR greats like Larry Elmore and Clyde Caldwell. I got back into it 4 or 5 years ago when some friends invited me to play in a 5e campaign. Since then my group has played a few Gumshoe games and I’ve GM’d in both 5e and Gumshoe.

    I’m still in a 5e campaign, but I’ve soured a bit on the game. The 5e core books are masterful game design, but the published campaigns, the player culture, and the later splatbooks really grate on me. I think actual play podcasts staffed by improv actors have done as much to warp people’s sense of TTRPGs as porn has done to warp people’s sexuality. However I hope to spend more time talking about how I like a game where the player characters are all human mercenaries (and any sapient non-human NPCs are profoundly strange and generally bad news) rather than complaining about games where half a dozen tiefling bards work at Starbucks and the main XP mechanic is for reporting anti-orc racism to the wizard college bias response team.

    This blog is my explorations and musings on the kind of Appendix N inspired OSR gaming I increasingly prefer and hope to write for.